Panama City, FL – Deputies in Bay County have been arresting about 10 looters a night, and police said they’re usually armed.
Bay County Sheriff’s Major Jimmy Stanford said deputies have arrested about 10 suspected looters every night since Hurricane Michael made landfall in the Florida panhandle on Oct. 10.
Maj. Stanford said looters have been targeting homes and businesses, the Panama City News Herald reported. He said the people looting are almost always armed.
“Most our officers lost their homes, have been working 16- to 18-hour shifts with no sleep, no shower; and now they’re encountering armed individuals,” the major said. “It’s a stressful time for everyone in Bay County.”
Victoria Smith said she left the door of her home in Callaway open on Sunday night to get a breeze as she slept with her four children in their storm ravaged home.
Smith woke up as looters snatched her purse right out of her arms.
“I must’ve been so exhausted from everything in the past days I didn’t hear them come in,” she told the Panama City News Herald on Monday. “They just snatched my purse out of my hands and ran... It was all we had.”
Authorities said calls to 911 for welfare checks and people trapped on their properties have become calls about violent crimes being committed in the literally powerless community.
"This hit so hard and so fast that a different aspect of human nature is going to come out and people are going to do anything to survive," Christopher Donahue told WEAR.
Residents and business owners have placed a variety of signs around the communities most affected by Hurricane Michael that read “U Loot, We Shoot” and “Looters Will Be Shot.”
One looter was fatally shot during an incident with Florida state fire marshals that occurred when the man tried to steal a police vehicle.
A witness told WEAR that he saw the whole thing happen from across the street.
“He yelled at me a little bit, he said oh, I’m looting, and he opened the door, to the police officer’s SUV with the lights going got in it and shut the door," Landon Swett told WEAR.
Swett said that’s when he took his family inside their house.
“As I’m crossing the doorway, I look back, I saw the officer at the passenger side, I don’t believe the door was open yet, I believe had both hands like this. Then I got about three more feet inside, and I heard the shot,” he said, demonstrating how the officer pointed his weapon at the looter.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement was investigating that shooting.
Maj. Stanford said authorities hoped the influx of additional officers from other areas, and much-needed other resources, would help to quell the rising violent crime.
Cooper’s Drugs near Bay Medical Sacred Heart was one of the first businesses to get hit, the Panama City News Herald reported.
Owner Danny Cottrell said the pharmacist caught looters mid-theft on the first night after the storm.
He was able to intervene and stop them, but it caused the store’s owners to move even more quickly to secure the medication that was left.
“We don’t want those drugs on the street,” Cottrell said.
Maj. Stanford said the looting had shifted toward areas near the beach as of Sunday night, and the stepped-up law enforcement presence would continue for the foreseeable future.
He said the generosity of neighbors was keeping morale up despite the horrible circumstances.
“All of our neighbors are helping each other and that’s great,” Maj. Stanford said. “Sometimes you just have to realize we’re all in a bad situation.”
The storm, which is being called the most powerful hurricane to hit the continental United States in almost 50 years, has so far earned a bodycount of at least 16 people in Bay County, plus another 10 deaths in other areas of the South, WJLA reported.
Florida emergency officials have not yet said how those people died.
Video of a Family Dollar store being looted right after the storm went viral.
The New York Times reported that military vehicles were guarding that store on Friday.